New paper on financial market crashes and media coverage

Our new paper showing “Lack of Critical Slowing Down Suggests that Financial Meltdowns Are Not Critical Transitions, yet Rising Variability Could Signal Systemic Risk” is out in PLoS ONE!

Nature India carried out a very nice article on our work, written by Mr Varma. National University of Ireland, Galway issued a press-release (an initial draft of which was written by Rajashree of Science Media Centre, IISc). and featured it on their website. Here is a media article at Deccan Herald, but whats written there just does not make sense.

This work was done in collaboration with Dr Srinivas Raghavendra, an economist at the National University of Ireland, Galway. We started the work sometime in mid-2012. Nikunj Goel, a Physics undergraduate student at IISc, joined this work in early 2014 and did enormous contributions to the manuscript. Quentin Hoarau, an undergraduate itern from CNS, France, was also a co-author on the manuscript.

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Media coverage of our winter school modern finance and macroeconomics

Along with my collaborators Srikanth Iyer and Srinivas Raghavendra, I am organising an ICTS conference on “Modern finance and macroeconimics” from Dec 22nd and Jan 2nd.

We are delighted that our school got a coverage from Deccan Herald, an important newspaper in southern India. My colleague Srinivas Raghavendra and a student participating in the conference are quoted in the article.

In this school, I will be teaching techniques related to our collaborative work on testing predictions of early warning signals of critical transitions in financial markets. This work was done with Srinivas Raghavendra and my former UG students Nikunj Goel and Quentin Hoarau.

And Happy new year to all!

Comments on opportunities for scientific research in India [Updated]

Mr. GBSNP Varma is writing a series of articles in Science Careers (online) section of the Science magazine to highlight opportunities and challenges for scientific research in India. In the part 1 of this series, myself and several of my colleagues and collaborators such as Dr. Maria Thaker and Prof. Sriram Ramaswamy have been interviewed.

Read the article here: Part 1: In India, Abundant Opportunities

My picture in the article in my office was taken by Ashwin Viswanathan, with all of my lab members making fun of how I pose to pictures (and I was nervous)!

Update (12/11/2013): here is the part 2 of the article focussing on challenges of doing research in India.

“Can the collapse of an ecosystem be foreseen?” – by Priyanka Pulla

Priyanka Pulla, an award winning freelance journalist [1], wrote a blog about our work (with my adviser Prof. Jayaprakash) on early warning signals of ecosystem collapses.

Here is the link.

As always, she writes really well (check her blog and her other articles). She also makes some connections to Indian Monsoon and the hypothesis about regime shifts in Monsoon.

[1] Priyanka’s article on Flock Theory and Synchronies of Nature in Open magazine won her the RedInk Awards for Journalism 2013. That article, if you haven’t read, is something you must read! Obviously, that is also relevant to my research work. She had written on the fascinating work of my colleague and collaborator Sriram Ramaswamy at Physics Department (now director, TCIS, Hyderabad). She had also interviewed me to get an ecologist’s perspective.

Comments on MOOCs

Last month, Swaha Sahoo, a journalist based in London wrote to me asking for my opinion on MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses). She had gotten to know that in CES, we had informally recommended students to take some online courses on Stats and Math to complement their coursework that we offer.

Here is the article titled “Students flock to MOOCs to complement their studies”. It quotes a number of people from India on the value of MOOCs. I think she has used my comments aptly in the article, and I really enjoyed reading it.

Here is the full text of what she asked and what I wrote (warning, its very long!):

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Swaha: I read in one of the blogs that the Department of Ecological Sciences at IISc was thinking of recommending certain MOOC to students. I was wondering if this has been taken forward.

My response: I was the one in my department (Centre for Ecological Sciences) who suggested that we could recommend certain MOOC to students. But let us understand the context. We get students with very good biology/ecology background, and are highly passionate about research in ecology. However, like any other biology student in India, they probably stopped taking any math courses since their high school. But quantitative skills like basic statistics, math and programming is now almost surely needed for any ecology researcher. Although we do teach quantitative skills in our department, I believe quality of the class and learning can go up substantially if students can revise their basic math skills and perhaps add a bit more to it.

For this, we do not have the bandwidth needed to offer more courses. So we plan to recommend students to take certain MOOCs. To make learning more effective, and to ensure students don’t drop the MOOC (note that MOOCs have high attrition rates), we are thinking is to have local mentors/TAs who can clarify questions of students. So interactions are essential while MOOC provide basic materials to get things going. We may try this approach in the coming year in our department.

Swaha: Secondly, it would be great to get your perspectives on the potential for MOOC in India. Some of the areas I want to discuss are1. What is the potential for MOOC in India and can we leverage this to the benefit of thousands of Indian students?

My response: I have absolutely no doubt that there is a massive potential for MOOC in India and it can benefit of millions of Indian students. But, there is a big IF; this potential can be realized ONLY IF we do it the right way.

Let me first remark about the potential for MOOCs in India. As is well known, the state of higher education in India, except for a few colleges, is abysmal. Indian students deserve higher quality education but that requires good, motivating and inspiring teachers. We can not manufacture teachers overnight, but what we can potentially do is to bring a few great teachers, which I am sure we do have, to students through MOOCs.

Of course, that is easier said than done. Lets recall that NPTEL, an Indian MOOC where courses are taught by excellent professors from IITs and IISc, was conceived and started several years before the now famous UDACITY or Coursera came into picture. How many students take courses offerred through NPTEL? How successful have they been in achieving their goals? I do not have data on these aspects but what I do know is that just recording videos and putting them online will hardly work. In particular, I do not think just recording courses the way it is taught in IITs or IISc will work, because students who really need online education come from very different backgrounds and preparations.

This is not meant to be a review of NPTEL, but we need to understand what to students really want. Apart from understanding students’ needs, videos need to be lot more interactive, and engaging.The main point I want to convey is yes, there is potential for MOOC but only if it is done in the right way. I do not know what exactly is that!  But we need to keep trying various methods, understand the audience, improve teaching methods, make it as interactive as possible within the limitations of MOOCs, and of course evolve the MOOC based on the feedback.

Swaha: 2. Will MOOC replace physical, face-to-face interaction or complement it? Do you see a scenario where MOOC is taken seriously by universities and students successfully completing courses are given credits?

My response: MOOC can never replace physical face-to-face teaching and interactions. If teaching were all about delivering a set of instructions, or providing a recipe, then yes, MOOCs can rule. But teaching is less about transferring information or providing instructions, but more about learning. There is more evidence from research than ever that a typical lecture delivering style of classroom, even with a teacher, is hardly an effective way of learning. What we need are interactive classrooms, where students discuss new concepts among both themselves and with the teacher and this can provide an atmosphere of discovery and learning. I dont see how MOOC can provide such an environment. Of course, I have not even started on courses needing experimental work – where MOOC have no place at all.

There are some areas where MOOCs can, in a limited way, reduce need for direct teaching. Some examples that come to my mind are if a working professional wants to learn elementary computer programming but has no time to attend a full time class.    As a scientist, if I want to basic introduction to a subject I am not familiar with – I would look for a good MOOC. As a student attending a university with not the best education or teacher, one may look for a MOOC to complement his/her course work.

Swaha: 3. What does it mean for a teacher?

My response: As explained in my previous answer, MOOC can never take away need for a teacher. Perhaps, if there are really high quality MOOCs on a subject that a teacher teaching, that teacher may need to put better effort to provide a good quality classroom environment ensure students come to the class! But my view is that even an average classroom face-to-face teaching can be better than high quality MOOC. Of course, in an Indian context, even an average teaching quality is absent in most colleges and Universities.

Swaha: 4. Will it democratise higher education in the country and be accepted by students as a valuable addition if not alternative to a formal degree?  

My response: I very much hope it will! Let me close by saying that we should try MOOC in India, in as many different ways as possible and by understanding needs of students. We need to continuously evaluate the success and the failure, and adapt accordingly.

Comments on a recent paper on predatory cannibalism in Drosophilla

About a month ago, Dr. Alex Reis, a freelance science journalist from Germany wrote to me asking for comments on a new publication in Nature Communications on  predatory cannibalism in Drosophilla melanogaster larvae.

Dr. Reis’s article, which appeared in the Munich Eye, quotes me on the importance of such work.

Here are full text of questions that Dr. Reis sent me, and my answers:

Why study cannibalism?

Cannibalism is a puzzling phenomena when viewed from the perspective of a Darwinian individual who is trying to increase his/her chances of survival, and thus increase fitness. No doubt that cannibalism has benefits because conspecifics offer near ideal nutritional package. But it also means the individual is at risk of being cannibalized by other conspecifics!

Given the potential risk of death, even with the best nutrition, its not at all clear why so many species across taxa exhibit cannibalism, and under what circumstances can cannibalism evolve. Apart from what it means to individuals, cannibalism can regulate competition within and between species, and therefore their population dynamics as well. All this makes the study of cannibalism extremely important.

What do you think is the evolutionary relevance of this study?

A major challenge in studying evolution of cannibalism is that it is typically not easy to disentangle various costs and benefits associated with cannibalism with other confounding factors (of course, this is a general issue in studying the evolution of any animal behaviour). Moreover, we can very rarely see  what sort of changes driven by natural selection can occur over evolutionary time scales.

Vijendravarma et al succeed overcoming these challenges by a simple and elegant  experimental study. They chose Drosophila melanogaster which is an extremely well studied lab model system and clearly identify both proximate and ultimate factors that are influencing cannibalism. Importantly, they are also able to observe the rapid evolution of cannibalistic traits by running experimental evolution in nutrient limited environments. So, this paper provides a compelling evidence for how malnutritioned environments can lead to the evolution of cannibalism, and also maintain polymorphism in cannibalistic species.

What can it teach us about the biology and genetics of Drosophila and possibly other insect species? 

First, this paper shows that Drosophilla may have a new regulating factor affecting interactions and population dynamics of both this and other species of Drosophilla (i.e., earlier, people have considered competition within and between species, but not cannibalism!). It also suggests that Drosophilla offers sufficient genetic variations in their populations leading to rapid evolution of cannibalism in a few experimental evolutions conducted in laboratory.

Secondly, many studies on cannibalism have focussed on morphological features of species that provide arms (and defenses) for/against cannibalism or chemical signal that may induce or prevent cannibalism, whereas this study could potentially open up ways for exploring new avenues such as genetic or even neuronal for cannibalism.